Part two of our entry on stress and how it effects your immune system
21st Century Stress Stresses Immunity
The stress response worked beautifully for primitive humans who usually dealt with their stressors through a relatively brief burst of physical activity. Cortisol and adrenaline allowed the body to surge into action to overcome the stressor and support immune function in case of injury. During this physical activity, the circulating stress hormones were dissipated and metabolism was able to return to normal. 21st century stressors, however, seldom require a physical response and tend to continue over longer periods of time. Historically, a stressor might be something along the lines of having to wrestle a large mammal to the ground for the week’s food. Today’s stressor is more likely to be bumper to bumper traffic when you have an appointment across town in 15 minutes for a job you cannot afford to lose because your paycheck barely covers your current rent and you have a baby on the way. There is no effective way to physically overcome this type of modern stressor and little opportunity to dissipate the stress hormones it elicits. Because the stress continues, the brain keeps sending messages to produce more cortisol, and the multiple stressors become cumulative. This can wreak havoc on your immune system. If the adrenal glands are continually stressed, they may become fatigued and unable to produce sufficient hormone levels for effective immune stimulus. Consequently, a heavy stress load can have a negative impact on immune activity with either adequate or inadequate adrenal function. In addition, when people are stressed, they often do a poorer job of taking care of themselves. They have a tendency to laugh less, smoke and drink more, get insufficient sleep and make less healthy dietary choices – all of which can affect the immune system for the worse.
The Cortisol/Immune Seesaw
Elevated cortisol, as is often associated with healthy adrenal glands responding to ongoing stress, is related to a net decrease in immune function, leaving your body more susceptible to colds, flu, acne flare ups, and other infections, and potentially making you more vulnerable to more serious illnesses and degenerative disease down the road. Chronic stress is also associated with the development of allergies and autoimmune disorders. If stress continues over an extended period of time, the adrenals eventually may not be able to keep up with the continued demand and may, over time, actually produce too little cortisol. Among the other aspects of immunity that cortisol suppresses, it also affects inflammation. If the adrenals do not produce enough cortisol, inflammation in the body can worsen and inflammatory conditions can flare. Whether there is too much or too little cortisol, your body’s immune system can suffer from the effects of chronic 21st century stress.